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A descendant of a fabric known as Serge de Nimes (shortened to des Nimes), denim is a robust cotton material that has made an indelible impact on modern clothing. The fabric dates back to the 17th century, where it was used for making sails, upholstery and clothing for the working classes, particularly in Italy. The word ‘jeans’ derives from the trousers and clothing made of a denim-type fabric worn by the Genoese navy. Denim shirts, jackets and overalls then travelled the world, popularised in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly in the American West, where prospectors, miners and ranch hands relied on these durable work clothes.
Denim’s durability and low-maintenance made it ideal as ‘workwear’ and in the U.S. companies soon began designing denim trousers for specific purposes. A good example are jeans with stitch lines on the outside of the leg to make them more comfortable to wear on horseback. As the 20th century progressed, the globalization of youth fashion aided by television and film made wearing jeans a symbol of rebellion. Not only did jeans make the individual look cool, they were also very functional; strong, comfortable trousers that not only lasted but seemed to age and develop character.
The utilitarian nature of jeans has helped them endure and, unsurprisingly, many city road cyclists choose to ride in jeans. But while they are great for general use, if you are clocking high mileage on a day-to-day basis in the same pair of jeans, you’ll notice localised punishment and eventual disintegration. Also, your favourite pair of jeans are not as flexible as bib shorts. So Rapha set out to find a solution to such problems.
The Denim Interview
We spoke to Graeme Raeburn, Rapha’s lead product designer, about the development of the Rapha denim and the creation of performance jeans for the city road rider.
Where and when did you begin to develop ideas for the Rapha jeans?
Two years ago, we started at looking at what was available. I purposefully wore my existing jeans into the ground to see where the weak points were and what the problems were with current or traditional denim. Clearly the biggest problem is the fabric, hence why we set out to design our own denim material.
As a man who rides good distances around the city, did you mind riding in regular jeans in town? And what are the problems with regular denim?
Typical denim is nearly all cotton, though occasionally denim will have small percentages of Lycra for comfort, stretch and fit. The individual yarns are made from plant cells, which are actually quite brittle and, although the fabric softens with time, it's because the yarns are breaking down.
There is also little stretch in a woven cotton and we knew from the start we needed some Lycra to give good stretch for on-bike movement and fit. Another problem is that cotton yarn surfaces are covered in lots of tiny holes, which means water is easily absorbed and held onto; hence why a pair of jeans can take a long time to dry.
Finally, a modern pair of jeans is designed to age and fade gracefully with wear. Breaking in jeans is a nice attribute of denim but when riding this process is accelerated and in a very localised area, the seat.
We took all these problems and set about making a custom denim to overcome this. By mixing in a Cordura-type yarn (a robust Nylon) with Lycra, we could improve the wear, durability, moisture management and strength. We could also reduce the colour-fade.
How many variants of Rapha denim have you tested? How did you arrive at the colour they are (we’ve seen people testing purple and stonewash variants, for example)?
I think we went through about five different prototype fabrics to get the weight, weave and colour right. Some of these remain relevant and still might get used in the future (i.e. a lighter weight jean for summer). We knew we wanted a dark but clean inky blue with minimum wash. Like a lot of our products, it's important that these are smart but versatile.
What were the main problems in developing performance denim?
The fact that no mill had actually made a denim specifically for cycling. We spent a lot of time finding a mill that would make it but would also understand its application. Next, we had to carefully work to incorporate cycle-specific details into a familiar jeans template. We wanted to keep them stylish - which can be a problem when trying to answer visibility issues.
How do you regard regular denim as a material for working and riding and as a fashion item? Is that where the beauty of denim lies, that it works well and looks good?
A pair of jeans has a much longer life than most other clothes. From breaking in their initial starched smartness, through to that faded patchwork of soft broken denim. Despite being essentially ‘workwear’, they remain socially acceptable. They’re perfect for cycle wear, as long as it doesn't rain.
How satisfied are you with the final product (Rapha Jeans)?
Extremely. We looked into it, identified the problems and looked for solutions. When we found there were none, we created our own. We have a totally unique product. Once people wear a pair on the bike they will be convinced and understand the level we've taken jeans to to. We’ve tried to give the city rider everything they could possibly want in a pair of jeans: comfort, durability, flexibility, visibility, cycle-specific pockets for D-lock and keys. They are also durable, engineered seams, low-profile rivets and an additional repair patch - just in case.